Jeremy Hunt’s recent statement on the BBC Licence Fee represents the coalition government’s opening salvo in what threatens to be a highly unedifying assault on the Corporation. In all probability (in spite of all the government’s noises, backed up by their cheerleaders in the right-wing press) this will have very little to do with fairness, funding or the quality of programming. It represents the first time in thirteen years that the favourite sport of ‘Beeb-bashing’ is spiced up with the addition of sharp teeth to Tory prejudice in the form of ministerial office.
Hunt said, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, that:
“there is a moment when elected politicians have an opportunity to influence the BBC and it happens every five years. It is when the licence fee is renewed.
“That will be happening next year. That will be the moment when I use my electoral mandate [sic] to say to the BBC now, going forward for the next five years, these are what we think your priorities need to be and there are huge numbers of things that need to be changed at the BBC. They need to demonstrate the very constrained financial situation we are now in.”
There will, of course, be a strong argument for tackling executive pay (although the Tories don’t seem quite so keen to deal with this issue in too many other sectors) but any cuts forced on the BBC will almost inevitably have the effect of impacting on output. Love or loathe the Licence Fee, the Corporation produces some of the very best programming in the world of television and radio, has one of the best web resources available, and produces arguably the most trusted news output in the world. The BBC is also one of the world’s top brand names and does not make a loss.
Of course, the real driver behind the government’s assault on the BBC is the Tory Party’s perceived dependence on the Murdoch Press. Like Tony Blair before him, David Cameron was keen to court the approval of Murdoch’s Sun newspaper prior to this year’s General Election and it’s hard to reach any other conclusion than that the debt is now being called in. James Murdoch (Rupert’s representative on Earth) has been complaining for some time about what he sees as the anti-competitive effect the BBC has on the media marketplace, and particularly on the web. This last aspect is especially of concern to an organisation which has just placed The Times’ online content behind a paywall in an attempt to forge a new income stream to replace the diminishing returns of the ‘Dead Tree’ press.
The Licence Fee is the easy stick with which to beat the BBC, but it is also the mechanism which enables the Corporation to maintain the quality it does while also catering for unfashionable areas (such as culture) which commercial broadcasters won’t touch with a bargepole. Murdoch dreams of a world in which Fox News (Fair and Balanced™) is the model for how news is provided in every country in the western world, but as long as the BBC produce an alternative which is trusted by many more than depend on commercial alternatives, domination of the British media market will have to wait.
All of this chimes with a Tory Party which instinctively wants to fillet a BBC which they see as a hotbed of subversion and anti-establishment intrigue. Once again it falls to the Liberal Democrats within the coalition government to curb the mouth-foaming excesses of its senior partner. Let’s hope they can summon the strength and the will to protect, what I believe, is an organisation Licence Fee payers should be rightly proud of.